Ok, once and for all, pictures of your animals making stupid faces are not funny. Seriously. Lesson learnt. Lindsay Conn speaks to some local comedians about the real funny business.
Turn the telly on to any channel and it won’t be long before you see a comedian turning their hand to something outwith their calling. They present chat shows, they interview pop stars, they even give you guided tours into their struggle with manic depression. Comedians have become such huge celebrity property in recent years that it is easy to forget what brought them into the public eye in the first place.
With this in mind, I ventured down to The Stand Comedy Club on Woodlands Road, to see the reality at the grassroots of the profession. The comedians I spoke to there didn’t think it was as rock ‘n’ roll as the industry darlings would have you believe.
“I think it can be quite dangerous,” says Susan Calman, when asked about the Russell Brands of the world. “It encourages people to get into comedy for the wrong reasons; they want to get on the telly or be famous, and that doesn’t happen a lot”. But it’s not all attention-seeking anymore: comedians are often called on to take roles they haven’t prepared for. As the late, great Mitch Hedberg once riffed, “When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. ‘All right, you’re a stand-up comedian—can you write us a script?’ That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, ‘OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?’” But even the immortal Stephen Fry had to start off by sweating out new material in front of a tough crowd.
Rather than being lured towards comedy for the promise of money and recognition, Calman entered the profession after walking away from a career that promised both. She studied law at the University of Glasgow, which led to an appointment as a corporate lawyer after graduation. “I had an epiphany on my 30th birthday, and I said to myself, do you really want to be doing this for the rest of your life?”
Tom Brogan of Glasgow-based sketch comedy troupe You Owe Me Glue has similar views on the 9 to 5 life. “Of course working in offices and constantly thinking about killing yourself is brilliant. Who wouldn’t want that life? But comedy is too much of a thrill to abandon for the daily conundrum of ‘how will I do it’ and ‘should I leave a note?’ No matter how much of an uphill struggle comedy seems, I really can’t see myself chucking it in to pursue that coveted team leader’s job at the box factory.”
Local comic Rab Brown agrees. After dropping out of a drama course at university, he decided that he missed the thrill of performance and emailed The Stand to see if he could join in on one of their Red Raw shows. Red Raw is an open mic night, which combines the uneasy stuttering of first-time comedians with more established acts trying out new material. The shows can be a baptism by fire, with a demanding crowd. Calman, who also worked up the ranks at Red Raw, confesses that she thought she was “the business” until her first ten-minute experience. “It was the worst fucking night of my life. I went home and cried for five days”.
On this note, all three comics are unanimous on their opinion of the worst audience they can experience—a silent crowd. No response from an audience will guarantee that the material being performed isn’t up to scratch. On the other end of the scale, they tell me that hecklers aren’t a problem as long as the comedian at the receiving end is skilled enough to deal with them. “But sometimes your heckler isn’t trying to put you off or be hostile—he thinks he’s helping,” explains Brogan, a Red Raw veteran. “A lot of folk reckon that shouting out and interrupting is all part of it, and most times, it’s not. The real problem with heckling is when folk just won’t take a telling and, having had their wee moment of attention, don’t know when to turn it in for the evening. Once it spills over from good humour into hostility it can ruin the atmosphere in the room and potentially bring down the whole night.”
Calman has been performing for a few years, taking the set in her stride as she does tonight. Brown is not yet such a seasoned comedian, and appears more nervous. “I’ve not yet got to the standard where I can just go out there and wing it,” Brown admits, “I’m quite methodical in it”. Experience on stage and building up material is a crucial pathway for any new comedian, in order to the reach the stage where they feel comfortable chopping and changing a set, dependent on the audience in front of them. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to a comedy audience is never as successful as responding to the crowd you are performing for.
The need for the audience to be able to relate to a comedian directs many stand-ups in the construction of their material, and a prime source of inspiration often comes from personal experience. “Audiences can tell if you’re being honest, if it fits with who you are,” says Calman, carrying on by making the point that it’s a mistake for new comedians to think that they have to conjure up a new set every time they perform—it takes time and attention in order to perfect a set. Not doing so will ensure the worst nightmare of the stand-up—‘dying’ on stage, where a comedian is met with steely silence from their audience.
“Comedy is very much about turning up,” agrees Brogan. “Yes, you need to be funny, but putting the hours in is equally important. That may mean spending time in cars alongside blowhards and folk you have nothing in common with. It’ll mean a lot of long, lonely bus journeys and getting home at ridiculous hours. But when a daft thought that occurred to you when you were watching the telly one night makes a room full of people laugh, you’ll know if it’s all worth it.”
“Part of the joy of this is that if I was still a lawyer, I’d still be in an office,” says Calman. “With comedy, you travel around the country and you meet people. It’s an exciting way of life”. Surely the fast pace is another of the “wrong reasons” to get into comedy that she alluded to earlier? Calman disagrees. “Comedy can be absolutely horrible sometimes, very lonely, travelling around the place all the time,” she says, “but no matter how bad it gets, it’s still the first time I’ve ever truly been myself in my life.”